Panel includes ‘high level dignitaries’ such as PM, CJI, so minutes cannot be disclosed, says govt.
The Centre has refused to disclose the minutes of the Lokpal selection committee’s meetings, and its decision has now been upheld by the Central Information Commission (CIC). Right to Information (RTI) activist Anjali Bhardwaj intends to appeal the CIC’s order in court, pointing out the irony that the Lokpal itself is a body meant to augment transparency in governance.
The Lokpal was set up in 2013 as an anti-corruption authority which had jurisdiction over the Central government to inquire into allegations of corruption against public functionaries. However, no members were appointed for the next five years.
In November 2018, Ms. Bhardwaj filed an RTI request seeking information about the five-member Lokpal selection committee, which includes the Prime Minister, the Speaker and the Chief Justice of India, along with the Leader of Opposition and an eminent jurist selected by other members. She asked for records on the dates of committee meetings, names of attendees, and a copy of the minutes.
The Department of Personnel and Training, which works as a nodal Ministry for both Lokpal and CIC, refused to provide a copy of the minutes, saying that, “the authorship of such documents which include 3-5 high level dignitaries does not vest in the Department of Personnel and Training and same have been shared as secret document.” Instead of the minutes, a brief summary of the committee’s decisions at each meeting was provided.
In March 2019, Ms. Bhardwaj appealed the rejection at the CIC, noting that the Centre had not invoked any of the exemptions permitted under the RTI Act. “Just classifying some information or marking some document as confidential does not make it so, she wrote in her appeal, pointing out that there is no provision in the RTI Act for denying information merely because the authorship does not vest in the public authority or because some document is shared as secret.
In March 2019, a Lokpal chairperson was appointed, chosen by a four-member selection committee sans Leader of the Opposition.
A CIC hearing on the issue was held in January 2021, more than two years after the RTI was originally filed, and the CIC’s final order was published last week. At the hearing, the DoPT argued that “the confidentiality of the said record can be gauged by the fact that the averred minutes of the Selection Committee were received in a sealed cover.” It also invoked the exemption clause in Section 8(1)(e) of the RTI Act, claiming that the documents authored by third parties under reference is held in a fiduciary capacity by DoPT.
Ms. Bhardwaj responded that there has been no prior judgment that the recommendations of public officials are fiduciary in nature. “The larger public has a right to know about the basis on which their Lokpal or Lokayukta was selected,” she said during the hearing. “Transparency in appointment to oversight bodies is a crucial safeguard against arbitrariness in appointments and to ensure their independent functioning.”
Central Information Commissioner Saroj Punhani upheld the Centre’s stance, citing two Supreme Court cases related to a Lokpal search committee and the committees for selecting information commissioners.
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